By Bill Woods
The last year has been an unusual time for Cincinnati City Council. In the midst of the pandemic, Council was rocked by corruption charges involving three of its members. Not only were these members replaced, but four others will retire at the end of 2021 due to term limits. At the May 20th Community Issues Forum, Councilmember Jan Michele Lemon Kearney talked about her first year on City Council during this far from normal time.
Councilmember Kearney reviewed her involvement in a series of issues facing Council in recent months. She began by discussing Council's process for allocating the funds the City will receive from the major federal pandemic relief bill that was passed in the first months of the Biden Administration.
She emphasized that much of the money will pay for traditional City services in order to makeup for the loss of City revenue during the pandemic. "These federal dollars," she declared, "will help the City balance its budget."
When asked by a Forum participant, Kearney admitted that the process had been confusing. For instance, Mayor John Cranley had unilaterally announced a series of large community grants he wanted to be funded by this federal relief package. Council then got involved, and Kearney and Councilman Greg Landsman organized a series of public meetings concerning how these funds should be used. Kearney, herself, had proposed that $50-million be allocated for the Affordable Housing Trust Fund. All this was
done before the City knew the federal guidelines and restrictions related to this relief bill.
The actual restrictions, according to Kearney, greatly reduced what the City could fund from the relief bill. For one thing, the money will be allocated to the City over a two-year period. It also cannot be used for capital expenditures. When it came down to making actual decisions about how to spend the current federal relief money only $29-million was available for community projects while the rest will pay for regular City services. The upside of this, noted Kearney, "is that we will receive a second installment of federal dollars next year."
A question was asked about the results of the council's recent deliberations on establishing a process for determining a development project's impact on a neighborhood. The Peaslee Neighborhood Center has created a "Rubric" for evaluating how major developments will either improve or diminish the lives of people living in a neighborhood, and it advocated that the City adopt this process for any project seeking a tax abatement or public funds. Kearney praised the work of Peaslee and said that the plan put forward by Councilmember Greg Landsman did borrow some of the Center's approach. She noted, however, that this step represents only a beginning that needs further work, but that it does include some critical questions for Council to pose to developers requesting City support.
Kearney is currently working on one important aspect of this issue. Unlike Columbus and many other cities, Cincinnati does not have an ordinance that requires a major housing development seeking City approval to include a percentage of affordable housing units in its plan. She and her staff are currently drafting an ordinance that would mandate an affordable housing percentage in any big development receiving a tax abatement or public funding. Impressed with the Columbus model, her initiative follows that City's guidelines. She plans to introduce her proposal very soon.
The City Manager's proposed 2022 budget is now completed, and Council will soon be reviewing it for adoption. Kearney stressed that citizens who wish to participate in the budget deliberations need to mark June 3rd and the week after that as times to make plans to come to City Hall. She also said that people will be able to testify or make comments via Zoom, but they have to inform the Clerk of Council's office if they wish to utilize this process.
Asked about her approach to serving on City Council, Kearney emphasized being a good listener. When she asked her husband Eric, who had served in the Ohio General Assembly, for his advice, he had stressed both hearing and trying to understand the two sides of an issue. She finds this approach to be helpful in resolving neighborhood disputes that emerge from time to time.
She also thinks that an important part of her job is to listen to what citizens in various neighborhoods believe to be the problems and issues that deserve City attention. "Collaboration" is also a key element in her approach. Often the City can find ways to collaborate with neighborhood projects or civic endeavors. In the past, she noted, many people thought the City wasn't listening to them or interested in their issues. She concluded that holding the public hearings on how to spend the federal relief funds taught her a lot about how to actually serve her constituents by listening to them and seeking ways to collaborate with them.
Jan Michele Lemon Kearney was appointed to Council in March 2020, and she will campaign to retain her seat this fall.